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The Riddle of Rest

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When you gaze at a still lake or a stunning sunset, what do you feel? Do you feel at peace? Do you feel calm?

Or do you feel a bit… restless?

Now, it may seem odd to identify restlessness as a response to the beauty of the natural world, but if we take a moment to explore the mind in these moments, you’ll see that this is often the case.

Neuroscientists are now finding evidence for what the Daoists have known for millennia: that in any given moment, the mind is engaged in a tug-of-war along two fronts. The first front is the mind’s tendency to aimlessly wander. To let thought bounce around from one point to the next, and to do so in an uninhibited manner. In neuroscience-speak, the region of the brain that facilitates this meandering flow of thought is referred to as the default mode network, or the DMN.

The second front is the mind’s tendency to fixate on one specific thing. It has the keen ability to ignore the innumerable sensory inputs that are competing for attention, and to instead direct it toward an identifiable object of focus. The parts of the brain that facilitates this is aptly known as the task-positive network, which includes the prefrontal and parietal cortices. Ultimately, this is what allows people to be productive with their time.

The fact that both these fronts are embedded in the same mind is what allows peace and restlessness to reside in the same sentence. For example, when you view a still lake, the initial thing you feel is a soothing calm. There’s a quieting of the incessant chatter that accompanies your mind, as the beauty of the scene urges you to simply enjoy what you’re experiencing. The mind wanders into a mapless terrain, with no destination that it needs to ultimately land on.

But as soon as the novelty of the experience begins to fade out, the chatter begins to fade in again. The soft currents of water that once occupied the foreground of your attention become soft noises that blur out into the background of your awareness. And as this happens, all the thoughts about what you need to get done and what you need to accomplish take center stage again.

In essence, this is simply how the mind works. In the same way that darkness cannot be identified without the knowledge of light, wandering cannot be understood without the ability to focus. One can’t exist without the other, and this is not just a philosophical claim, but also a scientific one.

The reason why I’ve been pondering this is because I’m often perplexed by what it means to rest. We all know that rest is important, but what is it exactly? Is it about doing nothing for a prolonged period of time? Specifically, is it about doing nothing with your body, but allowing your mind to be active (i.e. reading a book or watching a show)?

Or is it the inverse, where your mind is quiet but your body is active? If I go on a hike, for example, is that rest? What about traveling, even though there’s stress involved in planning and such – is that rest?

Interestingly, the answers to all those questions can be “yes,” even if they contradict one another. And the reason is that ultimately, rest is when you’re not associating your self-worth with what you have to do next.

When you’re staring at a still lake and you get restless a few minutes later, that’s usually because a thought sneaks in about what you have get done. Your mind fixates on the concern you had before that lake entered your field of vision: all the thoughts about what you have to do for work, what meals you have to prepare for whom, the next event you have to attend on your calendar. There’s this stark reminder of something that snaps you out of the moment, and pivots your mind to the future.

Whenever you’re thinking of something you have to do next, you are no longer resting. And chances are, whatever you have to do next is either to fulfill a responsibility to another or to prove to yourself that you’re competent. This could take on the form of a work task, a thought about your business model, or even a scheduled hangout with your family and friends. There is a subtle notion of self-worth being smuggled into the picture, knowing that you what you have to do next occupies the domain of interacting with others.

That’s why rest is ultimately about doing things that have nothing to do with the furthering of your place in society. Rest can take the form of reading a book, but only if that book serves no purpose to your professional or personal goals. For example, I’ve realized that my mind is truly at rest when I read fiction, and I have zero desire to highlight anything. That’s because I’m fully present with the words on the page, with no desire to collect or retain information that I later use for my writing.

I also consider swimming to be a form of rest. Even though my workout is rather strenuous, I find that my mind is quiet while I’m swimming, with no thought being given to what I have to get done. There’s something about the feeling of water on my skin and the rhythmic movement of my limbs that cultivates this sense of peace.

And also, there’s nuance in the rest I feel when hanging out with others as well. If I’m hanging out with a friend simply to hang out, then that’s a form of resting. But if I’m hanging out with a friend to learn more about how I can operate my business or how we can partner on some creative opportunity, then that’s not rest. Whenever there’s anything centered around how my sense of self-worth can be furthered, I am not in a state of rest.

The reason why a still lake is the archetype for a still mind is because it flows without any intention. The currents softly rise without breaking, and in the instances where it does, it happens without aggression. There’s nothing it’s trying to do; it’s simply going where it needs to go.

But drop a stone into the lake, and the ripples flow out in a way that goes against the state of nature. Even a harsh gust of wind won’t create ripples in the way that a small stone does. That’s what it means to desire more than what you have; to become somebody or to further your place in a community. Your presence may be known, but it may do so at the expense of the stillness around you.

Rest is to take those moments to understand that you’re not defined by what you produce, and to be okay with whatever you are. It’s to allow that emptiness of mind to prolong whenever you see something beautiful, and to understand that this is not an anomaly, but a glimpse into the reality of what truly is.

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